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Carnegie’s Maid: A Novel: Chapter 37


October 2, 1866

New York, New York

New York City demanded new gowns, according to my mistress. Andrew arranged for the finest dressmakers to visit the suite at the St. Nicholas, where Mrs. Carnegie and Andrew had ensconced themselves for the season. While Andrew spent his first few days in the city meeting with investors and railroad executives, I passed them in the hotel suite reviewing drawings and fabric samples with my mistress and various dressmakers. The end result of all this fuss was four new dresses that, to my eye, looked substantially the same as her other gowns, except for the odd flounce and slight adjustments to the bustle. I tried not to consider what my family could do with the money constituting the cost of her dresses.

But I knew my mistress would not enter the New York City society fray without the perfect dress, particularly given that Friday brought with it the prospect of a musical evening at the Academy of Music, which, we had been told, society folk would be attending. We understood that the highest realms of New York society were guarded by the women. Not just any women, mind, but the wives and daughters of a small set of families referred to as the Knickerbockers. These families were the descendants of early Dutch settlers who’d amassed modest fortunes in trade, and their women were eager to keep at bay those made newly wealthy by oil, the railroads, and the stock market—like the Carnegies—particularly if they were immigrants as well. Not that Andrew or his equally ambitious mother would give up before trying.

“How are the dresses coming along, Mother?” Andrew’s booming voice traveled all the way into his mother’s dressing room, where I was darning. Sometimes, I felt like needlework was all I did.

“Lovely, Andra. I think you’ll be well pleased.”

“Grand. I want you to look your best for the opera at the Academy of Music.”

“It seems such a fuss. In Homewood, we were friends with the best people, and an elegant evening of dinner at someone’s home and whist would suffice.”

“That’s just it, Mother. We can afford the culture and entertainment that New York City has to offer. Why would we want our lives to just ‘suffice’?”

My mistress chortled. “Ah, Andra. You never were satisfied.”

“The day is lovely. Shall we step out for a stroll? You’ve been cooped up in this hotel for days meeting with seamstresses and dressmakers and designers on those dresses.”

“I’d hardly call spending a day at the St. Nicholas being cooped up. Andra, did you know that the lobby has its own post office, a bookstore, a travel agent, a telegraph office, and four restaurants? Not to mention that there are no fewer than five grand parlors in this hotel. Why, one of them has gold brocade window curtains and bouquets of freshly cut flowers that they replace every day! Imagine the expense.” She tsked. “And the waste.”

“You don’t need to worry about waste any longer, Mother. No scrimping and saving for you.” The fabric of the couch rustled, and from my eavesdropping post, I guessed that Andrew had risen to his feet. “Let’s take a stroll onto Broadway.”

“That would be lovely. I’ll summon Clara for my things.”

“Why doesn’t she come along?” he asked.

My heart skipped at the prospect of venturing into the city streets.

“Why would I want to bring Clara?” Her voice sounded tight.

“I thought it might be helpful.”

“I don’t think it’s necessary, Andra. It’s not as if I need her assistance to simply go for a stroll. I will have your arm to steady me if I need it.”

“You misunderstand me, Mother. It might be helpful for her to know the location of the pharmacy and various tradespeople, such as hatters, tailors, dressmakers, perfumers, and the like.”

“True. Clara will need to know where to go for errands.”

A summoning and a coat and I was flung into the madness of Broadway. Instead of irritation at having to keep my mistress in my sights, I was relieved to have an anchor to buoy me. Otherwise, in an instant, I could have been lost amid the clatter of hoofs, the creaking of wagon wheels, the cries of street vendors, and the chatter of a hundred different people.

Periodically, Mr. Carnegie pointed out a favorite glove maker or a well-stocked pharmacy, but otherwise, we traveled at a good clip until we reached a small but well-tended park with shade from a grove of royal paulownia trees, serpentine walkways, and plenty of benches upon which to rest. We stepped through its wrought-iron gates at Andrew’s behest.

“Mother, if you ever need a respite from the indoor wonders of the St. Nicholas, I recommend this park. I often stop here in the late afternoon for a breath of nature before returning to the hotel to see you.” He looked at me while making his seemingly innocuous suggestion to his mother. His meaning was clear.

Strains of Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma wafted through the air. I closed my eyes and let the music wash over me, forgetting that I did not sit in the audience but on a long bench designated for servants outside the auditorium doors. Although the opera was unfamiliar, certain melodies brought back memories of my sisters and I practicing classical compositions at home in Galway. While our neighbors fiddled out Irish ballads, violating the law prohibiting all Gaelic culture, my father pushed us girls to use our instruments for loftier music. It was another reason I was not exactly popular with the lads in Galway.

I had not received a letter from Eliza in weeks. I knew it might take a bit longer to get mail since it had to be rerouted from Pittsburgh, but this was two weeks more than usual. How were they faring? I wondered. I hated having to pretend in my letters that I did not know about Dad’s Fenian involvement and to suppress my anger at him for placing the family in danger. Whatever my confusion and misgivings about my situation with the Carnegies, I knew I should count myself lucky to have food, a roof, and salary enough to help my family at home—and maybe more, if the money Andrew made on my behalf actually materialized.

Another lady’s maid to my right coughed. I glanced over at her with a ready smile, but she would not meet my eyes. Instead, she turned away and started chatting with the lady’s maid to her right. Had I done something to offend her?

The music stopped, and ushers opened the doors to the auditorium. Patrons in elegant gowns and suits began streaming out, heading toward the bar, where aperitifs would be served during the intermission. Many of the ladies seemed to know one another, greeting each other with careful embraces that never mussed their dresses, as did the men, who shook hands.

Andrew and Mrs. Carnegie drifted into the crowd, and I tensed as I watched them. They looked small amid the horde of taller patrons and oddly old-fashioned in their attire, although we had been assured that both Andrew’s suit and my mistress’s gown reflected the latest fashions. Pretending to sip on a crystal glass of champagne, Andrew attempted conversation with a gentleman standing next to him as I observed nervously.

“Look at those two,” I heard the lady’s maid with whom I had attempted to establish a connection whisper to the girl to her right. She was staring right at Mrs. Carnegie and Andrew.

“Some nerve those two have coming here among the Knickerbockers,” the girl whispered back.

“Like they’d ever be accepted.”

“Just look at the length of the lady’s sleeves. Bet she got that design out of some ill-informed newspaper society page. Not one of the Knickerbocker women would ever wear a sleeve that touched her hand. It would cover her wrists,” she said, aghast at the thought of this secret rule being broken.

“I can only imagine what my mistress, Mrs. Van Resselaer, is saying about them to her friend Mrs. Morris. Look how they are chatting right next to them and staring.”

“Who’s going to tell that woman the proper length for sleeves anyway? As my mistress, Mrs. Rhinelander, always says”—the girl raised her voice to a higher pitch and adopted an almost English accent—“‘Our ways should not be widely shared. That would be too democratic, inviting into our society all manner of people who do not belong.’”

The other girl giggled. “My mistress says much the same. I bet Mrs. Van Rensselaer and Mrs. Morris are taking apart that woman’s posture. Look how she hunches her shoulders. No swanlike neck for her.”

“You cannot blame our mistresses for staring. They hardly venture outside each other’s brownstones for entertainment. That mother and son must seem like exotic animals to them.”

While the lady’s maids laughed at the Carnegies’ expense, I prayed a silent Hail Mary that the intermission end soon, taking this painful commentary with it. As if my prayer had been answered, the gong mercifully sounded.


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